The absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1967) takes place “in the wings” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, elevating two minor characters to main roles. In Stoppard’s play, two childhood friends of Hamlet wander around, seemingly aimlessly, unaware of larger events – and of course go to their eventual doom: thus the play’s title, which is taken from the final scene of Hamlet.
One hilarious theme of the play is that if asked, these Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reinterpret events. For them, Hamlet the play is actually about two guys (them) and they occasionally come across speeches and activities which simply mystify them.
That’s way volunteer participation in an electoral campaign can be. What’s the campaign all about, someone might ask? “Well,” the volunteer worker answers, “it’s about a campaign volunteer who sits at a desk with a telephone and makes lots of telephone calls, day after day, right?”
It felt that way to me. I was Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?), sitting at a big table in an office building in Forest Hills, Queens. Not an actual office building, really just a second floor (first floor, in the British/Australian lexicon) cramped walk-up above a grocery store on …, about a ten minute walk from the Forest Hills subway station in Queens. The single toilet door did not close properly. It had not been cleaned for months. Here are some photos:
I was there in early September 2011, making telephone calls for David Weprin, a Democratic State Assembly member who was running in a by-election against cable television executive Bob Turner. This was the Ninth Congressional District of New York – the one that had been held by disgraced (but still popular) Anthony Weiner, who resigned after a “sexting” scandal.
I heard the candidate speak just once – my own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moment – as I stood outside the packed room in an equally packed corridor – while Weprin gave a speech to the campaign workers and Democratic Party stalwarts – accompanied by Christine Quinn, the politically powerful New York City Council President (and the leading Democratic candidate for mayor in the next election, to follow Bloomberg). I couldn’t see Weprin but could hear him, and at the end he walked past me quickly, my one in-person fleeting glimpse of the candidate, on his way to his next event.
One late afternoon and evening I went to a different location for the phone calls, a campaign headquarters just west of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in the low 20s, on the seventh floor of a small high-rise office building, which had been used by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for her election campaign (she succeeded Hilary Clinton upon her elevation to Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, was elected to the seat in November 2010 and is running again in this week’s election – sure to win the “safe” seat). The contrast in accommodation was notable: sleek, new desks, the latest telephone handsets, nice cool air-conditioning, smart posters and stationery advertising the successful female senatorial candidate.
By my calculation, I made more than 400 telephone calls for the Weprin campaign over four days of work. The first two days, I knew who I was ringing, looking at details from the voting rolls, and so I could usually tell in advance what ethnicity and age the people were. I used my full name (why not, whoever cared?) in introducing myself on the telephone. Of particular interest to me were the Jews who seemed to constitute at least one third of those I telephoned.
One day I overheard a series of most curious telephone conversations of a woman sitting next to me. She seemed to use two different surnames, one sounding somewhat Irish (McClusky) and the other very Jewish (Moskowitz). I thought I was actually not hearing properly until I realised that she was purposefully changing her name, most likely depending on who she was ringing. New York, I thought – where the Irish become Jews and the Jews become Irish, almost at will. (Who am I to complain? One of my grandfathers, upon his arrival in New York City from Poland in the early 1900s, changed his name from Perlgut to … Goldberg. Not exactly the traditional assimilation we have come to expect.)
Weprin lost, in a very low turn-out election in a seat that had been held by a Democrat since March 1923, with past occupants including Charles Schumer (currently the senior senator from New York) and Geraldine Ferraro, the first female Vice Presidential candidate in American history.
New York’s (former) Ninth Congressional District (that district has since been abolished as the State of New York lost two districts in the last round of Congressional re-districting) had the fourth-largest Jewish population of any congressional district, with some 173,000 Jews, according to a 2009 report from the Mandell L. Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank. Jerry Skurnik, a partner at the political consulting firm Prime New York, told The New York Times that about a third of the district’s active voters are Jewish.
There is some debate about the matter of how influential the support of former New York (Democratic) mayor Ed Koch was in this election. Despite his age (then 86) and his distance from electoral politics (out of office 22 years at that time), some commentators claimed that Koch’s endorsement of Turner was a crucial factor in the loss. Or perhaps it was the group of Orthodox rabbis who “halachically forbid” their followers from voting for Weprin – that’s right, rabbis opposing Weprin the Orthodox Jew, because of his support for gay rights.
The volunteers I came across were the young (university students and twentysomethings) and older – mostly retired. Where was everyone in-between, from ages 23 to 60? The answer might possibly have been “at work” (I only worked on the campaign on weekdays), but I wonder. Those who were there were a fascinating mix – aside from me, a USA-born middle-aged white guy living in Australia, there were elderly African-American women, older Chinese men, a Hispanic mother-adult daughter (speaking a fluent Spanish), and a bunch of other Anglo types. What I did not come across, considering the make-up of the district, were any volunteer Russian speakers – but I sure came across lots of them on the telephone, the majority of which could not speak English (and, I sensed, were not going to vote in the election).
This was a devastating loss for the Democrats at the time, and I feared that I was see the real middle of the end of the Obama era, a symbolic moment of loss of support in a Democratic district that foreshadowed much worse to come in November 2012. I was wrong, as this Tuesday November 6, 2012 will show.